Commentary

Can’t We Dump This Nanny Job?

It’s apparently time for another pointless debate over who should be surgeon general of the United States.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders, who famously called for schools to teach young people how to masturbate. Now President Bush has tapped James W. Holsinger, a surgeon and cardiologist from Kentucky, for the position. Holsinger evidently has some antediluvian views on homosexuality, which makes his fitness for office questionable, to say the least, and already the usual suspects are preparing to do battle over his nomination.

A better question would be, “Do we really need a surgeon general at all?”

In fact, has anyone even noticed our current acting surgeon general? Can anyone name him? (Answer: Rear Adm. Kenneth P. Moritsugu.)

When you get right down to it, the surgeon general doesn’t do very much. The office was originally established in the 19th Century to ensure medical care for the Navy. For years, surgeon generals labored in quiet obscurity, until C. Everett Koop dragged the old Navy-style uniforms out of mothballs and discovered television.

Since then, we’ve had controversial surgeon generals such as Elders and obscure ones such as Moritsugu. But the truth is, nowadays the surgeon general is little more than the “national nanny,” nagging us to stop smoking, lose weight, and never leave home without a condom.

Bush said he nominated Holsinger because the doc is an expert in childhood obesity. I’ve been flipping through my copy of the Constitution, and I can’t find the part where the federal government is charged with making our kids eat better.

There are plenty of private groups that are fully capable of instructing us on how to be healthy, wealthy and wise without government involvement. The American Lung Association can tell us not to smoke. Alcoholics Anonymous can preach sobriety. The American Medical Association can lecture couch potatoes on the benefits of losing weight and exercising more. Planned Parenthood and the Family Research Council can fight it out over when and how we should have sex. Surely someone can deal with overweight children.

Given the government’s track record of efficiency, being the nanny for 300 million Americans seems a little beyond its ability.

The surgeon general does oversee the Public Health Service. But we have a Department of Health and Human Services that is supposed to be running the government’s health-care programs. Why not let HHS take over any useful functions of the Public Health Service and dump the rest, including the surgeon general?

This latest controversy offers Congress the chance to address something more important than bad presidential nominees. It could take this opportunity to discuss the proper role of government in our lives. Now that would be a debate worth having.

Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatives Brought Down the Republican Revolution.